Observing butterflies with kids

This month, I’ve been having a lot of fun observing butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Just thinking about butterflies can bring a smile to my face. They seem to embody everything that is good about the world — wildlife, flight, beauty and flowers.

Let’s learn a bit about butterflies and explore ways to get your kids excited about the butterflies they might see in their neighborhood.

Butterfly basics

Butterflies are flying insects with a very interesting life cycle. A butterfly goes through four stages in its life: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupae (chrysalis), and then adult (the one with wings).

Butterflies start as eggs laid on a “host plant.” Each type of caterpillars eat only certain types of plants —  for example, the famous monarch butterfly caterpillar only eats milkweed plants. It can’t eat any other kind of plant. When the caterpillar hatches from the egg, it can’t move very far and it’s very hungry. It needs to be on a plant that it can eat. That’s one reason why it’s important to protect different plant species from going extinct — to make sure each butterfly has the host plants it needs to lay its eggs!

After eating enough of its favorite food plants and reaching its full size, the caterpillar forms itself into a pupa, which is also called a chrysalis (“Chris-a- liss”). Sometimes we use the word cocoon — but that’s actually what surrounds pupating moths, not butterflies. Inside the chrysalis, the butterfly rapidly changes into its adult self. This is called metamorphosis. In time, the butterfly emerges as a beautiful adult.

As adults, they have four wings that are covered in scales — this makes butterfly wings very interesting under a microscope! The wings themselves are very fragile and the scales can flake off if handled roughly, so it’s a good idea to avoid touching their wings if possible. Adult butterflies can’t eat leaves, but instead most of them eat nectar from flowers. However, some even eat tree sap, rotting animal matter, or animal dung.

Butterfly activities for kids

As always, the best way to learn about butterflies is to experience them in nature. Butterflies have to be warm to fly. They can fly in temperatures as cool as 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but when it’s that cold they have to stop and shiver to warm up their bodies. They prefer temperatures between 82 and 102 degrees. Look for butterflies on warm days, usually between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. — a great outing idea for kids!

Very hot temperatures and rain can reduce the number of butterflies flitting about, but if you’re warm, dry and fairly comfortable, they probably are too. Look for places with lots of wildflowers — mountain meadows or flowering gardens. They also frequent patches of wet ground to drink.

When you spot a butterfly, be careful how you approach it. They have good eyesight and are startled by quick movements. Try not to let your shadow touch the insect, and try to approach it from below. It’s often possible to get very close to butterflies if they are perched at the viewer’s eye level or above. Kids have a natural advantage, and if they can learn to move slowly and gently, they can become very good butterfly watchers. You can try to identify species using field guides or websites, though many species look very similar. Some easy species or groups to start off with are the mourning cloak butterfly, Sara orangetip, and the swallowtails.

Hatching butterflies is another fun activity. There are really amazing butterfly kits you can purchase online that allow you to grow butterflies from eggs, watching every stage of their life cycle.

Hillary Schwirtlich, membership and education coordinator for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, loves introducing people of all ages to the beauty and wonder of North Central Washington.